Why were there so few famous women visual artists prior to the last four decades of the 20th century? Why are there still so few women writing classical music? The debates about the impact of gender politics on the arts have rightly gathered pace in recent times.
I’d like to go down that road in a later post, but one of the factors that emerges in relation to painting is that several significant female artists were simply not given their due by their contemporary culture or by later art historians.
So here is another question.
Which major western industrialised nation can claim a woman as its artistic founding father…errr…mother?
The answer is Canada, and the woman concerned is Emily Carr.
I don’t want to reproduce a detailed biography of her here (but please do check out the fascinating details elsewhere). Broadly speaking she emerged from the west coast of Canada as an independent-minded young woman in the 1890s, pursuing a determined apprenticeship in painting that took her to the major art centres of Europe.
In 1907 she made her first journey up the western seaboard of Canada, taking several months to travel up to Sitka in Alaska and back to her home on Vancouver Island. Even today this qualifies as one of the world’s “incredible journeys” and in 1907 (she made the trip with only her sister for company) it must have been a huge challenge. The coastline is a virtually unbroken expanse of mountains, rain forests, fjords and islands, with only the occasional aboriginal (I will call them First Nations) village as human habitation.
This led to an astonishing six year period during which Carr completed many solo trips into the coastal wilderness, producing a swathe of magnificent, vibrant canvases. Many of these recorded the communities and culture of the First Nations people before there had been significant contact with the white colonialists busy establishing towns and industries in the interior. Many more gave pulsating expression to her love of the boreal forests. She also wrote eloquently about her experiences and her sources of inspiration.
Her work, however, did not find an appreciative market and she was forced to make a living by turning her home into a bed-and-breakfast. She lived in relative hardship for the next 14 years, still painting a little and still writing but also experiencing deep depression.
Meanwhile Canadian art had come to be synonymous with the landscape painting of a group of richly talented eastern-based artists, known as the Group of Seven (with the comet-like career of Tom Thomson bolted on).
Then, in 1927, The Canadian national Gallery in Ottawa mounted an exhibition entitled West Coast Art: Native and Modern. It took an anthropologist rather than an art historian to suggest that the show should include some of Emily Carr’s work. However, once the curators visited Carr to see her paintings they made her the principal exhibitor and her life changed. For the next fifteen years, despite ongoing poverty, she produced her greatest work. She even reactivated her tiny one-person caravan (which she called The Elephant) and made more forays into the forests.
Her work became more and more acknowledged, and other artists began to champion her, most notably Lawren Harris, the most influential and internationally known member of the Group of Seven. Carr’s technical range continued to develop and her paintings from the late 1930s are her very finest. In the early 1940s she began to suffer severe heart problems and she became unable to paint. She turned to writing and her thoughts on her art, on First Nations culture, on the natural world and on her travel experiences are full of insight, wisdom, independent character and humour.
She died in 1945 at the age of 74.
So much for the bare bones of the story. Carr’s place as the first truly major, original talent within Canadian art (most of what had gone before was Euro-Victorian pastiche) has long been established. However, her work has only latterly been recognised in the USA and in Europe. This belated recognition is partly down to the fact that sometimes (not always) quality will out, and partly down to the growth of interest in neglected women artists.
There is currently a superb retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London – you have until March 15th to enjoy this rare and quite thrilling pleasure!
As with all great visual art, whether painting, sculpture, photography or film installation, it is hard to put into words the essence of Emily Carr’s work. I like the early portrayals of First Nations totem heritage poles, canoes and lodges, but her genius seems to find its fullest expression in her forestscapes.
As a child I remember being entranced by the idea that the UK was once largely covered in trees. I have always felt a profound fascination with the sort of woodlands that you can get lost in. This is a feeling made up of 80% loving absorption, 10% delicious fear, and 10% disturbing fear.
Carr’s individual trees and riotous forests provide vivid glimpses informed by love, by wonder and by mystery. They are studies in power and vulnerability. They display the pulsing heart of the forest world with barely any reference to human presence. It is as if she is revealing a vibrant life-form that existed long before people and that will once again thrive after humanity. There are also hints in her work that allude to the dangers of deforestation, with the consequent degradation of our natural world and the stories it embodies.
Her work is also a testament to the craft of the painter, revealing the qualities that the medium can have over photography. Her trees and bushes and undergrowth are in motion, there is a sense of vital movement with every brushstroke. Her subjects teem.
She paints trees as dancers rather than as statues.
I am aware that my own travels in western Canada, including episodic Maintenantman stravaigs all the way up that western coast, have given me a special feeling for Carr. But writing is all about taking the personal and making it universal…so try to get to Dulwich, or failing that invest in a collection of her work (the catalogue is excellent).
I have been struggling to find the right quotation from Carr’s writing to include in this post, there are so many great, simple observations to choose from. I will close with a haiku by me, and this sentence from her journal: “Listen, this is the way to find the thing that I long for: go into the woods alone and look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind expanding, bursting, pushing its way upward towards the light and air, each one knowing what to do, each demanding its own rights on the earth”.
A haiku for Emily:
Whipped-up whorls of trees,
your live forest fingerprints,
throw shapes, throb with heart.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I am very happy to say that Between Me and You has needed to be reprinted. It is now available again!
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Thirty-nine poems in a handsome Royden Josephson cover @ £7 (plus £1.50 p/p in the UK, £2.50 overseas).